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John H. Armwood Jazz History Lecture Nashville's Cheekwood Arts Center 1989

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

12 iconic landmarks from Miles Davis’s New York

The city was a central character in the eccentric life of jazz’s brightest star

120 Claremont Ave
New York, NY 10027

Miles Davis moved to New York City at just 18 years old to attend the prestigious Juilliard School of Music. But having grown up in all-black neighborhoods in St. Louis, Miles experienced something of a culture shock at Juilliard, where the predominantly white student body and faculty studied not jazz, but classical music. He quit after a year because “the shit they was talking about was too white for me.” 

Despite his dislike of it at the time, Juilliard gave him the type of formal music education other jazz musicians lacked, and Miles credited his time there as contributing to the direction his music went. Juilliard eventually moved to the Lincoln Center, and the campus Miles attended became the home of the Manhattan School of Music in 1969.

Photo by MCNY/Gottscho-Schleisner/Getty Images

72 W 52nd St
New York, NY 10019

In the late 1940s, there was no more happening place in America than the clubs that lined 52nd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. The Onyx, Three Deuces, and Club Carousel, to name a few, were where Charlie “Bird” Parker and Dizzy Gillespie honed the next aggressive step in jazz’s evolution: bebop. At just 19, Miles Davis began playing with Bird as his regular side man. 

The Street, as it was known to its patrons, became the focus of the NYPD, as cops would funnel heroin to musicians and club-goers so they’d have an excuse to stage raids. At the time, bebop was akin to gangsta rap; it was an aggressive black art form that was both hated and feared by the white establishment. Walking down this section of 52nd Street today is a solemn experience; 21 Club is the only remaining venue, and it bears little resemblance to its past.

Photo by William Gottlieb/Redferns/Getty Images

210 W 118th St
New York, NY 10026

If the Street was where musicians went for exposure to white audiences, Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem was the “black jazz capitol of the world,” where the real development and experimentation of bebop took place. After the clubs on The Street closed for the night, musicians would head to Minton’s and play until the sun came up. Bands led by Bird and Dizzy would invite people from the audience up to play, like an audition. Fail the audition and you were likely to be booed off stage, or even assaulted. 

When they invited Miles up for the first time, Bird and Dizzy were left smiling. “From then on I was on the inside of what was happening in New York’s music scene,” Miles said of that first performance. Minton’s has closed and reopened a few times over the years, and has been remodeled, but it remains to this day.

15 Barrow St
New York, NY 10014

Cafe Bohemia started when the owner wanted to give Charlie Parker, who lived across the street and was hopelessly addicted to heroin, a platform on which to rebuild his life. Parker died before ever playing there, and instead, Cafe Bohemia became the venue at which Miles put his life back together, following his problems with the drug. 

Cafe Bohemia is where Miles and John Coltrane, then completely unknown, began working together, and it was where the group now known as the First Great Quintet—Miles, Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones—first played together in July of 1955. It was the backdrop for Miles’s recordings with Prestige, highlighted by the quartet of Walkin’, Relaxin’, Steamin’, and Cookin’. In short, this venue is where Miles Davis found his greatness. Today, Cafe Bohemia is a sports bar that makes no mention of its storied past.

207 E 30th St
New York, NY 10016

Signing with Columbia Records gave Miles the resources to produce what would become widely considered the greatest jazz albums of all time, which were recorded in Columbia’s iconic 30th Street Studio. Kind of Blue (1959), Miles Ahead (1957), and Bitches Brew (1970) are just some of the masterpieces Miles recorded in the studio, where he and long-time producer Teo Macero would famously spar over the best path forward on any given tune. His time in the studio began in 1957 when he recorded the straight-ahead jazz album Milestones, and ended in 1972 with the jazz fusion classic On the Corner.

Miles was hardly the only musician to make history in the studio, as Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Storywere also recorded there. Columbia abandoned the studio in 1982. It has since been demolished and replaced with a luxury apartment building.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Curbed NY Newsletter

178 7th Ave S
New York, NY 10014

Miles outgrew Cafe Bohemia shortly after signing with Columbia, and he moved his group to the Village Vanguard in 1958 for one simple reason: gigs there paid more. The move was certainly a blow to Cafe Bohemia, as Miles and his group were emerging as the premiere live jazz act. It was also a boon to the Vanguard, which had switched from a stage for folk and beat poetry to an exclusively jazz venue the year prior. 

The Vanguard was the place to see Miles Davis in his prime, beginning with the First Great Quintet in the late 1950s to the Second Great Quintet into the late 1960s. The venue is also significant for being one of the city’s few surviving jazz lounges, and it’s a must for any fan of the genre visiting New York City. It’s hosted virtually every major name in jazz, beginning with Miles all the way to the stars of today. 


160 Bleecker St
New York, NY 10012

The Village Gate opened in the late 1950s around the same time the Vanguard switched to jazz. While Miles didn’t get as much use out of the Gate as the Vanguard, it worked its way into his regular touring rotation, particularly later in the ’60s when Miles was working with the Second Great Quintet. Following John Coltrane’s death in July 1967, Miles booked the entire month of August at the Village Gate, and in his autobiography he says those performances became “the talk of New York,” as celebrities packed the venue. 

Miles also played regularly at the Gate during his electric period in the late 1960s and early 1970s, having Richard Pryor open for him once. The building at 160 Bleecker has a long and interesting history, and while the original Village Gate closed in 1993, its sign still hangs on the building. Today, the performance space is now (Le) Poisson Rouge. 

434 Westchester Ave
Bronx, NY 10455

Miles Davis was a man who took things to extremes, and it was no different when he was on one of his health kicks. His favorite workout was boxing at Gleason’s Gym in the Bronx, where legends like Muhammad Ali trained. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Miles was the model of health, training at Gleason’s for hours at a time. He had periods where he ate as a vegetarian, having said in 1969: “I figure if horses can eat green shit and be strong and run like motherfuckers, why shouldn’t I?” 

Gleason’s Gym moved to West 30th Street in Manhattan in 1974 and to DUMBO in 1984, where it remains to this day. Over the years, its locations served as sets of a number of movies, including Raging Bull. 

4199 Webster Ave
Bronx, NY 10470

To say Miles Davis was moody would be a dramatic understatement. There were few people in his life who didn’t end up on the receiving end of his ire, particularly white people and music critics, the latter of whom nicknamed him “the Prince of Darkness.” This anger ultimately killed him in September of 1991, when he blew up at a doctor who wanted to put an oxygen tube into his lungs to help him work through a bad case of bronchial pneumonia. He turned purple with rage, had a massive stroke, and went into a coma from which he never awoke. 

Underscoring the importance of New York City to his life, he is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, instead of in St. Louis where he grew up. He was buried along with one item: his trumpet.

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